National Data | NYT Asks "Do Immigrants Make Us Safer?," We Answer!

See also: Facts And Factoids on Immigrant Crime and Sampson's Silly Theory On Immigrants And Crime

Crime rates have declined precipitously over the last 15 years. The immigrant population increased by more than 50 percent during that period.

Are the two trends related?

Is everything we "know" about criminality among immigrants wrong?

That's the premise of a recent article in the New York Times Magazine by Eyal Press, a contributing writer for The Nation. [Do Immigrants Make Us Safer?, December 3, 2006, also here.]

As "evidence" Press cites several small scale studies of selected metropolitan areas – for example:

"Ramiro Martinez Jr., [send him mail] a professor of criminal justice at Florida International University, has sifted through homicide records in border cities like San Diego and El Paso, both heavily populated by Mexican immigrants, both places where violent crime has fallen significantly in recent years. ''Almost without exception,' he told me, 'I've discovered that the homicide rate for Hispanics was lower than for other groups, even though their poverty rate was very high, if not the highest, in these metropolitan areas.'…'

"The most prominent advocate of the ''more immigrants, less crime'' theory is Robert J. Sampson, [send him mail] chairman of the sociology department at Harvard. A year ago, Sampson was an author of an article in The American Journal of Public Health[ PDF] that reported the findings of a detailed study of crime in Chicago. Based on information gathered on the perpetrators of more than 3,000 violent acts committed between 1995 and 2002, supplemented by police records and community surveys, it found that the rate of violence among Mexican-Americans was significantly lower than among both non-Hispanic whites and blacks."

A couple of thoughts spring to mind.

No one should be surprised, therefore, that cities where Hispanic immigrants have displaced blacks as the largest minority have experienced lower crime rates.

  • Second, it's equally clear, based on national incarceration data [Paige Harrison and Allen J. Beck, "Prisoners in 2005," Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin, November 2006. Table 12. PDF], that Hispanics are more violence prone than non-Hispanic whites.

Ideally, we would like to examine data on offenses and arrests by race and Hispanic ethnicity. Unfortunately, the Department of Justice's crime stats lump Hispanic perpetrators in with non-Hispanic whites. This has the effect of narrowing the gap between black and white crime rates (by inflating the white rate) while suppressing information on Hispanic criminality.

Inescapable conclusion: many DOJ bureaucrats are too PC to present the truth on immigrant, largely Hispanic, criminality.

Luckily, the folks who prepare the incarceration statistics for DOJ didn't get the memo. Their statistics distinguish between Hispanic, non-Hispanic white, and non-Hispanic black prisoners. (Wow! Can data for the foreign-born of each group be far behind?) These incarceration statistics also show the type of crime for which prisoners of each race were convicted.

In 2003, the latest available data, there were 219,200 Hispanics in state correctional facilities and 39.9 million Hispanics in the U.S. population. That's an incarceration rate of 549 per 100,000 population.

The incarceration rate for non-Hispanic whites was 230 per 100,000—or less than half the Hispanic rate.

The black incarceration rate—1,580 per 100,000— was 2.9-times the Hispanic rate and 6.9-times the white rate.

For every offense except fraud, Hispanic incarceration rates were above those of whites. (Table 1.) For example:

Murder: Hispanic: 72 per 100,000 white: 24 per 100,000
Robbery: Hispanic: 71 per 100,000 white: 20 per 100,000
Assault: Hispanic: 70 per 100,000 white: 20 per 100,000
Drug offenses: Hispanic: 126 per 100,000 white: 33 per 100,000
Motor vehicle theft: Hispanic: 12 per 100,000 white: 4 per 100,000

Harvard's Professor Sampson does not deny the incarceration rate gap, and even acknowledges that Hispanic crime may be underreported because of immigrants' aversion to interacting with the authorities. Yet he insists the higher immigration, lower crime linkage is real—

"That these two trends might be related has been overlooked, he says, in part because immigrants, like African-Americans, often trigger negative associations regardless of how they actually behave."

''In particular,'' Sampson [and his co-author] found, 'the proportion of blacks and the proportion of Latinos in a neighborhood were related positively and significantly to perceived disorder.' Once you adjusted for the ethnic, racial and class composition of a community, 'much of the variation in levels of disorder that appeared to be explained by what residents saw was spurious.''

Get it? The notion that Blacks or Hispanics commit crimes at higher rates than the rest of us is based on stereotypes and misperceptions—despite the DOJ incarceration data.

Clearly, the DOJ data collectors need sensitivity training.

Edwin S. Rubenstein (email him) is President of ESR Research Economic Consultants in Indianapolis.